Difficult Curve...

My thoughts on creating a challenging and entertaining difficulty curve in a game.
Once of the more difficult aspects to get right in a game is the difficulty curve. Start the game off too easy and the player loses interest, start it off too hard and the player gets frustrated. Same thing happens if you ramp up too slowly, or too quickly. The trick is to slowly introduce new elements to the player as the level progresses, requiring them to think before the act, and to be more cautious.

Let's work on an example. Here's a list of gameplay elements:

Gameplay Elements
Bad Guys Jumping
Pits Ducking
Lava Double-Jumping
Gun Turrets Shooting
Falling Rocks Running

Now, throw all of those things in the first level, and your player is overwhelmed. Let's say we've got a game that have five levels. Five levels, five hazards, five abilities. Uh oh! I see a pattern :D Introduce the player to simple elements first, like the bad guys. He can jump on their heads and kill them a la Mario Bros. So great, level 1 we introduce the player to Jumping and Bad Guys. Level two, the Jumping and bad guys are back, but they're mixed in with Pits and Ducking (Ducking to avoid the new FLYING bad guys, of course ;) ). Level three, we still have everything else, but now we introduce Lava and Double Jumping. This continues until the last level where we have all five hazards and all five abilities.

It's important to remember to balance the hazards in a level as well. Let's look at level 5 in our example above. There's a lot going on there that requires the player to respond in different ways. If he's trying to jump over a pit, while dodging falling rocks that are coated with Lava and bristling with turrets that are shooting bad guys... he's going to get overwhelmed and the game stops being fun and starts being a chore.  Remember that each hazard is not a whole in and of itself, it is a part of a greater whole. I like to look at it like the level as HAZARDS. One set of Hazards. Each individual hazard works as a fraction of that hazard. So 2 fifths of the hazards are bad guys, another fifth is pits and lava, gun turrets make another fifth, and the rocks make up the last. So mostly, you're fighting off baddies, but occasionally you run into pits and lava, rocks, and gun turrets, just to make your life a bit more difficult. This lets the player deal with one or two hazards at once, rather than all of them at the same time.

Start of by plotting out the easiest level, then plot out the hardest. From there, create a nice difficulty curve between the two. And don't be afraid to cut hazards and abilities. It may be the most awesome thing in the world to have an ability where you character can swoop down from on high, spewing hot molten lava from his bum, but if there's no place for it in the game, then it has to go. Likewise, it may seem vitally important to include a bone crushing baddy that fills half the screen... but if it doesn't fit, it doesn't go. Keep your list of features as short and concise as possible, which will help you to create a good level arc, and also help you ensure that the features you do keep are solid and polished.

Talk to you again soon!

Latest Jobs


Playa Vista, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Senior Physics Gameplay Engineer - Treyarch

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, CA, USA
VFX Artist - High Moon Studios

Anne Arundel Community College

Arnold, MD, USA
Instructor/Assistant Professor, Game Art

Treyarch Vancouver

Vancouver, BC, Canada
Producer - Treyarch Vancouver
More Jobs   


Explore the
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer Newsletter


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more